People with high emotional intelligence usually pick up on these 6 subtle social cues

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As a journalist who interviews people on pretty much a regular basis, I have learned the art of picking up on social cues. 

For example, a hesitation to a question can mean that it’s best to change the subject because they would rather not discuss it. 

Or if someone looks away, it usually means they don’t know the answer or are bored with the question. It’s usually my cue to move on to something else. 

Rosalind’s Oropeza Randall is a social etiquette expert who gives advice to businesses as well as the film industry. She has been in green rooms, many times face-to-face with celebrities. 

“There were celebrities who made eye contact as they entered, and some greeted me,” she says. “A few even engaged in small talk. But I was acutely aware and respectful of their social cues.” 

Oropeza Randall says that knowing when to disengage eye contact and when a conversation needs to cease, is a skill worth mastering. 

People with high emotional intelligence are able to pick up on subtle social cues that some may miss.

Here are six cues to clue in to.  

1) They pay attention to body language

There are a myriad of social cues given off via body language, says the editorial team at therapy platform Regain US

For example arms folded across the chest can signify disagreement or defensiveness. Touching the nose can point to lying, rejection, and disagreement as well. 

These ones might seem obvious but I didn’t realize that someone putting their hands on their head could mean that they felt upset (without explicitly showing it), ashamed, guilty, or bored. 

Crossed ankles can indicate nervousness, anxiousness, or apprehension. 

Most of us know that someone shifting their weight can mean that they are feeling intimidated, fearful, impatient, or anxious. 

Hands behind the back might mean apprehension, anger, and frustration. And pinching the bridge of the nose can indicate disagreement or a negative evaluation. 

2) They are able to gauge out facial expressions

Most of us are emotionally intelligent enough to know that eyes wide open and eyebrows raised might mean surprise or fear and that tensed eyelids and lowered brows drawn towards each other could mean anger or confusion. 

But social cues that come from the mouth can be a bit more subtle and harder to assess, says Heather Jones from VeryWellHealth

“Tight, tense, or pursed lips may show a person is angry, afraid, or skeptical. A raised upper lip and wrinkled nose can show distrust.”

Of course, things also depend on the context. 

For instance, corners of the mouth drawn upwards can mean happiness, but it can also mean deviousness or sarcasm, says Jones. “It depends on context and the rest of the facial expression.”

Corners of the mouth that are drawn down and trembling lips can indicate sadness.

3) They listen to what someone’s tone of voice is saying

A person’s voice can also give social cues through its tone or volume, says the team at Social Skills Center in Northern Virginia.

“The tone of someone’s voice can let you know if they feel happy, angry, or some other way. The volume of someone’s voice can help you determine if they are engaged in the conversation.”

For example, a higher volume will generally mean a person is more engaged than a lower volume (although some people are naturally more quiet). 

Voice pitch, volume, and tonal variation can be effective ways to express the precise meaning of what you’re saying during a conversation,” says the editorial team at Indeed

“Your articulation, pitch, inflection, and volume can all generate social cues. Adjusting your tone during a conversation may change the mood of the conversation.”

4) But they are also able to pick up on a pregnant pause

Just a couple weeks ago, I lost a dear cousin of mine to cancer. 

So I decided to fly to the UK not only for the funeral, but to spend a little time with my extended family. 

Even though I could relate to the grief from having lost my own father six years ago, I felt it was important for me to just listen to my aunt share her pain at having lost her daughter (something no parent should have to go through), as well as my cousins who had lost their sister. 

Sometimes being there for someone without saying anything means more than anything else. 

“Silence can be used to express emotions that are too complex to put into words,” says the team at SnapReads

“When words fail, silence can convey sadness, grief, or awe. It can create space for individuals to process their emotions without judgment or interruption. In this way, silence can be a powerful tool for emotional healing and connection.”

Silence has a unique power to convey meaning and evoke emotions, says the team at SnapReads. 

“It is often said that actions speak louder than words, but sometimes, silence speaks even louder. When used effectively, silence can convey a sense of anticipation, mystery, or even disapproval. It can create tension and capture attention in a way that words alone cannot.”

You may have heard of a social cue called the “pregnant pause”. This pregnant pause is a deliberate pause in conversation, where a person momentarily stops talking so that the listener can process the information or respond. 

“The pregnant pause can be used to emphasize a point, build suspense, or give the listener time to reflect,” says the staff at SnapRead. 

“It can be a powerful tool in public speaking, storytelling, or even in everyday conversations.”

5) They get the meaning of gestures

No doubt gestures are used to emphasize what a person is saying. 

Obvious gestures can be someone animatedly waving their hands as they relate a funny story, for example. 

Gestures people use often have meaning behind them, says Jones. 

People with high emotional intelligence will often be able to pick up on social cues that are more culturally based. 

For example in my East Indian culture, as a sign of respect, men won’t shake a woman’s hand. They’ll keep their physical distance and nod politely and say hello. They’ll also most likely fold their hands in greeting—another indication of respect. 

“Some gestures used positively in one part of the world, such as the “OK” hand gesture in America, can be offensive or aggressive in other areas,” adds Jones. 

It’s wise to be careful of your gestures while traveling. 

6) They pick up on someone’s distance and personal space during social interactions

I know I do this. If I’m not interested in continuing a conversation with someone, I tend to turn my body away from them as if to say “I’m leaving this conversation.”

I might also take a step back away from them. 

I also tend to keep a more-than-necessary amount of space from people who I don’t know, don’t particularly like, or feel uncomfortable talking to

Being respectful of someone’s personal space is a social skill, says Julie A. Daymut, MA, CCC-SLP.

“Individuals who have difficulty showing appropriate social skills may unknowingly invade your personal space,” she says. 

“Conversely, individuals with social-skill difficulties or sensory issues may be extremely opposed to you being in their personal space. As well, it is important to keep in mind that different cultures have different ideas about personal space.”

Take a hint on these common social cues

Oropeza Randall says there are four common social cues to keep on your radar.

“If I disengage the contact, look away to talk to someone else, or check my phone, take a hint.”

“If I turn my body away from you or stand up, take a hint.”

“If I’m nodding a lot or saying, “uh-huh” a lot, take a hint.”

“If I haven’t said anything, asked, or shared something to contribute to the conversation, take a hint.”

We can take the hint. 

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